Ricky Church chats with Batman: Soul of the Dragon writer Jeremy Adams…
The first of Warner Bros. Animation’s DC films of 2021 will be released in just a couple weeks with Batman: Soul of the Dragon. Taking place in the 1970s, the film takes a look at Batman’s days training in the martial arts with his fellow students and how they must come together again to defeat a powerful threat to the world. Starring alongside Batman (David Giuntoli) are Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu) and Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White), some of the most skilled and deadly fighters in the DC Universe.
Soul of the Dragon is a throwback to the 1970s film genre of martial arts action adventure movies, taking inspiration from Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon and other such films in the genre. We caught up with screenwriter Jeremy Adams who spoke at length about his passion for the martial arts genre, his inspiration for the film’s story and feel and his love of Richard Dragon, a rather underutilized character who has interestingly been re-imagined as a villain in DC’s New 52 comics as well as The CW’s Arrow TV series. Check out our interview below…
Ricky Church: The start of 2021 must be pretty exciting for you because you’ve got Batman: Soul of the Dragon releasing mid-January. What are your feelings on that right at the beginning of the year?
Jeremy Adams: I’m thrilled mainly because when we put together this movie, at least the writing portion of it, with Bruce Timm, myself and Jim Krieg, generally in a room for hours on end talking about martial arts and Kung Fu movies and 70s genre tropes and it was one of the most creative fulfilling projects I had the privilege of working on. It was so much fun. The meetings were always supposed to be half an hour. They ended up being like four hours and to the point where they were like “Okay, you guys can’t have meetings anymore because they’re just going on too long.” So I knew from the beginning, man, I had so much fun doing it. As an animation writer, you finish your script and let it go and it goes to these brilliant artists like Sam Liu and Bruce and all the storyboard guys. Then a year later or a year and a half later, maybe you’ll get the opportunity to watch it. When I did watch it, it was kind of a strange feeling of “Oh my gosh, this is better than I thought!” Enough time had passed that you’re going “Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah! Okay! Yeah!” I’m watching the movie and I’m so thrilled because honestly I think it’s the best thing I’ve been able to work on and I’ve worked on some pretty cool stuff, but it just came out and it hit me right in the bullseye of the things I love. So that makes it even more antsy to have people watch it!
Yeah, that’s cool. Like you said, one of the intriguing things about this Batman movie is that it is almost like a period piece since it takes place in the 1970s. What inspired you to make Batman: Soul of the Dragon a throwback to those 70s genre films?
The funny thing is I’ve been pitching that Batman and Enter The Dragon would be really cool. Simultaneously, I guess Bruce pitched something similar. Bruce is a child of the 70s. That’s when he claims everything cool came out of the 70s. For me, that means like obviously the Kung Fu matinees, all the martial arts stuff really blew up in the rest in the late 60s to 70s and then these really cool genre core pieces in the 70s and then the 80s. It seemed like a great hodgepodge of genres we could play with and to put Batman in it was also a kind of homage to these great runs of comics from Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil in the 70s. I think because of that run of comics and Richard Dragon, Bronze Tiger, all those characters that existed in the Kung Fu craze, which Bruce was steeped in, it was like a great jumping off point. It’s not like we’re just making it out out of thin air. There’s a precedent within the DC Comics and Batman in the 70s. It’s kind of a fun way to revisit that and let modern audiences kind of do that. Hopefully it’ll inspire them to go back and read some of those ones of comics because they’re great! They’re fun, they’re action adventure, you’ve got a little bit of James Bond, you’ve got a little bit of martial arts, you’ve got a little bit of horror. It has everything. We zeroed in on that because it also takes Batman further away from where we are now which allows us to kind of tell a different story. It’s Batman, but it’s so much about Bruce Wayne and so much about his training and his relationship with these other people. It’s an ensemble piece too! I think everybody kind of gets equal time. I think maybe Richard Dragon might get a little more, but man, I can’t wait.
Now you talked about the homages to Denny O’Neill’s works from the 70s. Soul of the Dragon also has like a strong influence from like the 70s martial arts films. You mentioned Enter The Dragon and Bruce Lee before. Were there any other films you drew on for inspiration?
When I was a kid, I would come home from church and immediately they’d be Kung Fu matinees. So all those Kung Fu films in particular, stuff like 36 Chambers of Shaolin, the Kung Fu television series. Those were really big for me and I know Sam has said he used some that lighting style and stuff to inform some of the art that they did. You’ve also got these great blaxploitation movies. Oh gosh, I’m trying to think of is like the best one! There’s so many good ones. There was all these cool blaxploitation Kung Fu movies when we were growing up. I guess I was a little young, I mean, Bruce knew more, but I had seen them afterwards. I think that was one of the reasons I was really pushing for Michael Jai White because he did the ultimate send-up to blaxploitation in Black Dynamite which is amazing! I don’t even know how to describe it, but that seemed to be the genre of all the films that were going on at the same time.
You kind of alluded to it earlier, but this really is an ensemble piece with Batman teaming up with Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva and Bronze Tiger. Obviously Batman’s one of the best martial artists in the DC Universe with these other three. How did you choose who he would team up with and who they would fight against and how those dynamics would work?
I would say Batman is one of the best martial artists in the DCU. I don’t think he is the best martial artist. I think a part of this movie is about he’s great, but he’s probably not the best fighter compared to these people. I’ve been obsessed about martial arts in general and I’m very obsessive about the DC martial arts universe. Obviously back in the 70s there was a big push with Richard Dragon, all that stuff, but they didn’t really flesh some of that out and then Gail Simone fleshed that out even more in the pages of Birds of Prey with Shiva and Black Canary and stuff. So I am steeped in that universe and I would talk about it all the time to the point where Jim Creek, the producer, would always be like “Hey, listen, we’re about to go into this meeting, don’t talk about Cynthia Rothrock” and all that stuff and I inevitably start talking about it.
In my head, I always had kind of a top 10 list of the different DC martial artists and where they stood. Shiva’s obviously is in the top five. Bronze Tiger’s in the top five. Richard Dragon is in the top five. Chuck Dixon did a great reboot series with Richard Dragon, Bronze Tiger and Shiva, I don’t know, about 15 years ago, maybe it was 20 years ago. Time is different now, but it was really great. And it really struck me like, oh my gosh, and I started reading up on Richard Dragon and popped the question. He was the star. Okay. So we got Bronze Tiger, Shiva, Richard Dragon, to me, were locked in terms of at least the top five. Cassandra Cain too, but she’s years down the line. If you recall, they did a great miniseries of Robin, another Dixon book, where it was Tim Drake, and you have King Snake and there’s Lady Eve and Lady Judo Master, there’s a long line of martial arts specific characters. And so we kind of went through that and we all talked about what would work, what would be too silly, not silly, and we picked from there. That’s kind of the process. I honestly had like a top 50 list and I was like “Okay, let’s go through it!” Everyone just started rattling off. It’s like “No, no, yeah, no” so there you go.
Talking about Richard Dragon, it’s interesting with him because in the last decade he’s been somewhat re-imagined as a villain in the pages of the New 52 comics and the series Arrow.
Yeah, they’re wrong! Just wrong, sir! (laughs)
What made you want to reclaim his heroic status?
Mainly because for me, the first time I’ve read about Richard Dragon was he was somebody that was good and he was also somebody that would train other heroes. So that was the original aspect of him. I’m not really sure why people, I don’t know why they decided to go in that realm and that’s okay. But I liked him a lot. In fact, the first spec script that I wrote was a Batman: Brave and the Bold and it was Richard Dragon and Batman that I sent to Jim Krieg years and years ago. So I always look at him as a martial art hero, kind of that American Ninja. When we got on this project Bruce was wanting to make him Asian and I didn’t know this, but there was a book in which he wrote he was Asian or looked Asian on the cover and that was how Bruce always thought of him he was kind of taking her back even further. And as a martial art nerd like me, it’s like oh my gosh, we got Mark Dacascos to voice him! I’m like a big Dacascos fan to the point where Dacascos was like “oh you really are a fan.” He’s like the nicest human being in the world. I remember seeing Only The Strong with my brother and I thought “this guy is awesome!” and I followed his career since then and Michael Jai White and obviously Kelly Hu. To me, Richard Dragon has always been a hero and it’s been one of the things the further you get away from the source material, I think people just take a character in different directions, but that’s how I always looked at him. I was a big Richard Dragon fan before I even came into this project and I think that was surprising to people because he is kind of an overlooked character.
Soul of Dragon examines some of Bruce’s darker side. There’s a scene where just after Richard has seen him as Batman and he comments how scared he made the criminals. What was your approach examining Bruce’s darker side and differentiating Bruce from Batman, or do you see a distinction?
Well Bruce Timm has a very specific way of looking at back at Batman. He is Batman, Bruce Wayne is his real alter ego in a lot of ways so we ran with that. The colour we put on Bruce Wayne in this particular movie is that we dive into the psychology of somebody that dresses up like a bat. We discussed this in the training sequences when we go to Nana Parbat is like, he knows logically you can’t defeat evil. You know, the trauma that was inflicted on him as a kid, yeah, it was evil, and so now I’m going to dress up like a bat that and I’m going to defeat evil. O-Sensei makes this whole speech to him that you can’t destroy evil. Evil is eternal, it will remain. And yet Batman probably knows that logically, but internally he’s like “But I’m going to defeat evil.” The throughline of Batman’s quest is eternal. That’s how we touched on that darker side. I think the reason that a lot of people gravitate to Bruce Wayne and Batman is because it is heroism born of trauma and what he decides to do with that trauma. He can very well say “Hey, I lost my parents. I have all this money. I can just live whatever life I want” but instead there’s a part of him that’s like “I want to destroy evil and I’m going to do it any way I can even though that’s an impossible task.” That’s kind of where some of that darkness comes from. That’s his quest, everything else is ancillary. I don’t even think he has time for real, like we kind of show that he doesn’t really have time for personal relationships.
Thank you to Jeremy Adams for speaking with us!
Batman: Soul of the Dragon will be released on Digital January 12th and on 4k and Blu-ray January 26th.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.